DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – In the ongoing legal battle between the state and Firehouse BBQ, a lawyer representing the restaurant has filed temporary restraining orders against Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials one day after the Department of Health argued the owner should be held in contempt of court.
Jeff Wittenbrink, who is representing Eunice Danielle Bunch, owner of Firehouse BBQ and the parent company God’s Table LLC, filed the injunction in 21st Judicial District Court on Wednesday. Last week, a judge ordered the restaurant to close its doors for continuing to defy mitigation measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office delivered the temporary restraining order on Monday, but the restaurant has remained in operation, which led to the Department of Health filing a contempt of court order Tuesday.
The filing on Wednesday states that a closure, “even temporarily, may result in Firehouse BBQ having to close its doors permanently.”
Along with Edwards, the request from Bunch’s attorney also asks for temporary restraining orders against Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Dr. Courtney Phillips, and the Department of Health “from the further enforcement of the governor’s ‘mask order,’” which it claims is “unconstitutional, illegal, vague, and unenforceable.”
In the filing Wednesday, Bunch’s lawyer argues that “strict compliance with the masking rule is impossible, and that compliance with the masking rule as being enforced by the Louisiana Department of Health conflicts with Louisiana law and federal law and regulations.”
The filing states that enforcement of the mask order may lead to violence and violate First Amendment rights of free speech. It also states that the mask mandate and others have not been “equally applied,” noting Edwards’ public backing of protests calling over the summer.
“The Governor of the State of Louisiana has no inherent authority to command any conduct by the citizens of the State of Louisiana, nor to make any laws,” the filing says.
The case involving Firehouse BBQ, located at 33875 LA Hwy. 16, has received widespread attention ever since the Louisiana Department of Health pulled its food permit on July 31.
According to the July 27 business inspection, Firehouse BBQ was docked for tables not being spaced appropriately and employees not wearing face masks. The restaurant was then served with a notice that ownership was to close their establishment “immediately.”
The statement was issued as an emergency order from the Louisiana Department of Health.
Firehouse BBQ has remained in operation and has repeatedly said via social media that it would not comply with what it described as an “illegal mandate.” Bunch has continued to thank the community for its “overwhelming support” and recently started a page to raise money for legal fees.
In the filing on Wednesday, Bunch’s lawyer argued she informed the Health Department inspector that her employees had various medical issues that prevented them from being able to use the mask while working.
According to Edwards’ mask mandate, an individual with a medical condition “that prevents the wearing of a face covering” is exempt from the rule, which requires people 8 and older to wear masks in public settings.
“Despite having this information regarding medical issues, the health inspector failed or refused to speak to or interview the employees regarding their various medical conditions and the feasibility of them wearing masks or their good faith reasons for refusing to do so,” the filing said.
In regards to spacing, the filing stated that the inspector told Bunch her tables had to be spaced 10 feet apart, not the 6 feet that health officials have declared is appropriate for social distancing.
“[The inspector] received no information from Danielle Bunch that the requirement of ten feet spacing of tabletops would be resisted or not applied by Firehouse,” the filing stated. On Aug. 1, Firehouse BBQ posted on its Facebook page that “dine in seating is limited due to the 10′ between tables social distancing requirement.”
The state has argued that the restaurant is contributing to “irreparable harm to the public health, in the form of unnecessary risk of additional spread of COVID-19” by not adhering to rules that have been vetted by the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the Center for Disease Control.
In recent weeks, health officials have noted the “early signs” of Louisiana improving its position regarding reported COVID-like symptoms, cases, and hospitalizations, saying they have followed the extra mitigation measures put in place by Edwards.
Last week, Edwards called the actions of the restaurant “extremely reckless” and “irresponsible” as well as “unlawful.”
“Defiance of the order to help keep the people of our state safe by this establishment is extremely reckless and irresponsible,” Edwards said in a statement last week. “Louisiana is number one in the nation for the number of COVID-19 cases per capita, and there is no doubt that this behavior is contributing to the unnecessary spread of this virus. That is unacceptable.
“We have gone above and beyond to give this owner every opportunity to get in compliance with the order as our intent has always been to work with businesses.”
The Bunch family, owners of Firehouse BBQ and the parent LLC God’s Table, have until Aug. 18 to provide reasons why the restraining order should not be enforced. If the court sides with the Department of Health, the owners could be penalized with fines and jail time.
David Gray | The News